Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’ Review: There Are No Heroes, Only Different Shades Of Villainy

This weekend, I decided it was high time BH provided our very own Tiger King review. So like a dedicated little worker bee, I sat my fat ass down for a few hours – only barely registering movement to hit that “Next Episode” button during the end credits, and to occasionally scratch myself.

Before we proceed, this is your first and final SPOILER warning.

As many of you may be able to confirm, Netflix‘s latest true crime documentary series proved to be another bingeworthy affair. But after seven episodes, approximately five hours, and a whole lot of holy-shit-that-can’t-be-real-I-need-to-Google-this-right-now, it became very apparent: there are no heroes to be found in this story, only different shades of villainy.

What I had assumed was going to be an entertaining little detour from my immediate everyday life soon presented itself as a grim portrayal of post-modern humanity fraught with moral relativism. And dissecting each individual episode could indeed fill volumes upon volumes of scholarly journals – but for the sake of keeping this neat and digestible (as well as for the sake of preserving what few hours I have left of my weekend) let’s go through this in broad strokes.

Tiger King focuses on the strange and extremely interconnected borderline incestuous world of American big cat conservationists. Right from the outset, we’re introduced to the competing camps:

  • Joe Exotic – owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and the titular “Tiger King”
  • Bhagavan “Doc” Antle – owner/cult leader of Myrtle Beach Animal Preserve, yet another private enclosure; also with a hand in training animals for Hollywood
  • and Carole Baskin – the proprietor and face of Big Cat Rescue who has become one of the Internet’s most reviled figures since the release of Tiger King

While Joe Exotic and Doc Bhagavan represent more or less the same principles in regards to private big cat ownership, Carole Baskin was portrayed as someone who stood in opposition. At least in the earlier episodes. We’re lead to actually believe her crusade to end private ownership, and at one point she’s even called “The Mother Theresa of Big Cats” by her third husband. Little did we know, this label would be more of a foreshadowing for the eventual turn rather than an unintentional moment of perpetuating a widespread misconception.

As the series progresses, we’re thrown fifty different flavours of scandal and intrigue. It’s a classic game of distraction. Doc Bhagavan staffs his compound with what can only be described as a sex cult of his own creation. The disciples? Multiple wives – yes, his own – each taken from their former lives of nothing, indoctrinated with bastardised teachings of Eastern philosophy, and reborn as an enlightened flower child. Though clearly not enlightened enough to resist being peer pressured into getting breast implants. Nor see through the transparent and grossly patriarchal power dynamic at play.

Carole Baskin may or may not have killed her second husband, the multi-millionaire Don Lewis. Tiger King paints a pretty damning picture of culpability and suspicion, with all signs indicating Carole Baskin herself had something to do with it. More specifically, that Don Lewis’ “disappearance” was no “disappearance” at all given its exceedingly convenient occurrence right prior to an impending divorce – which would have rendered Baskin financially destitute and without a claim to Big Cat Rescue.

The grand implication was that Baskin had executed Lewis, ground-up his corpse/hid body parts in a sceptic tank, before feeding what was left to the tigers leaving zero trace. Yeah… and this is the abridged version of events. There’s also her cult-ish approach to leveraging free labour via a convoluted, tiered volunteering system and profiting from shit by making no-hopers feel included etc. Let’s keep this train moving…

Then to the matter of the leading man, hombre of the hour, the star of this entire shit show – Joe Exotic (real name: Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage nĂ© Schreibvogel). There’s a lot to be distracted by with Mr Exotic, former libertarian candidate for the Governor of Oklahoma. He’s gay. He’s a redneck. He totes guns. Occasionally, he tends to his career as a tiger-themed country singer. And he doesn’t shy away from the fact he’s partial to drugs. Larger-than-life personalities tend to get away with quite a bit, because let’s be honest – no one can stop looking at those damn pinstripes. But as it would so happen, that wouldn’t be enough to save him from the law.

Initially, Joe Exotic, Doc Bhagavan, and Carole Baskin strike the audience as three separate entities. It wasn’t hard to compartmentalise, what with the distinct features, whacky character arcs, and all. But with each passing minute, the lines began to blur. And blur. And blur some more. Before long, we see the common architecture all too clearly. Their exploitation of people with nothing left in the world, in search for more, the so-called higher purpose. The ruthless willingness to cut every corner to prevail as the one true Tiger Monarch. The disgustingly profit-driven behaviours, the slip before the fall, as they dived headfirst in a dangerous trajectory.

Most heartbreaking of all was the reveal that this had ceased to be about tigers a long time ago; in terms of both their pursuits and the documentary series as a whole. This was about a battle of egos. A battle that was so readily sacrificing all those big cats for the sake of a tangible victory. Say what you will about the deceased spouses, the personal tragedies, and the headline-making prison sentence. The ones that paid the ultimate price were not human but feline.

Again, an extensive and in-depth Tiger King review could probably fill annotated chapters upon chapters. The BH focus, however, will not venture beyond the surface-level examination of how malleable human morality can be in the heat of competition – whether it be motivated by dollars, ego, or even sex.

I recommend that you watch it for yourself and make your own judgements.

URGENT TIGER KING REVIEW UPDATE: I was wrong, there was one (1) hero. It was Saff. Nobody touch Saff.

UPDATE II (2/06/20): Carole Baskin has just been awarded control over Joe Exotic’s zoo by a federal judge. Big Cat Rescue is set to take all 16,439 acres of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Memorial Park, AKA “Tiger King Park” [source: Variety].